In 2003, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White wowed the college football world by throwing 40 touchdown passes on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.
The pure craziness of that number — 40 touchdown passes! — along with his 3,744 passing yards impressed Heisman voters so much, he was able to overcome the campaign of an extraordinary sophomore receiver named Larry Fitzgerald, not to mention the ignominy of Oklahoma’s 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game.
“(The 40 touchdowns), combined with his completion percentage and record, makes White not only the most deserving player this season, but possibly the most impressive Heisman quarterback in the past 10 years,” declared Sports Illustrated a few days before White picked up his trophy.
Flash forward almost a decade. In 2012, 40 touchdown passes by a quarterback barely raises an eyebrow.
We have entered the era of the “Super Quarterback”. Simply put, the old pocket-oriented passing systems that enabled average talents like White to pile up big numbers are almost extinct. Looking back, their production appears almost quaint compared to the statistics we see today. Cutting-edge variations on the spread offense featuring physical phenoms with unique tools who can squeeze every possible advantage out of these schemes are now dominating college football. The proof is in the numbers, the wins and the championships.
But it’s especially true with regards to the Heisman Trophy.
The most elite of these elite athletes are winning the Heisman of late by producing numbers previously not seen before in college football. They are winning despite having the kind of disadvantages that have historically squelched Heisman campaigns. And they are doing it sooner in their careers than most ever thought imaginable.
It didn’t start with Johnny Football.
That was up to Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow.
The marriage of Meyer’s spread offense and Tebow’s rare skill-set worked so well that Tebow, a first-time starter who entered his sophomore season as a bit of a novelty, accumulated 4,181 yards of total offense and 55 touchdowns. He became the first sophomore to win the Heisman and he did so just 25 games into his college career even while his Florida team finished a rather pedestrian 9-3 in the regular season.
In another era, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Tebow would’ve been a fullback or a tight end. A few years earlier, he would’ve struggled to find success as a quarterback in a standard college football offense, just as he struggles now in the NFL. But in Meyer’s scheme, the entire offense ran through him. That Florida team ran 848 plays in 2007 and Tebow was responsible for 560 of them. That he had the stamina and the durability to last through an entire season playing at such a high level is a testament to his freakish physical ability and competitive nature.
Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford also appeared on the scene in 2007 and he led the nation in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman under the tutelage of offensive coordinators Kevin Sumlin and Kevin Wilson (Tebow was second to Bradford in efficiency that year). The next season, playing in an Air-Raid style offense that emphasized a fast tempo, Bradford accounted for 4,767 yards of total offense and matched Tebow from the year before by passing and running for 55 touchdowns (50 of them came through the air). Bradford again led the nation in passing efficiency and became the second sophomore in a row to win the Heisman Trophy. His team made it to the BCS national title game, where it fell to Tebow’s Florida squad.
Bradford later went on to become the first pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
That fall, a double-transfer by way of Florida and Blinn Junior College named Cameron Newton showed up at Auburn and racked up 4,327 yards of total offense and 50 combined touchdowns while leading the Tigers to the national title. He became the first double-transfer in history to win the Heisman Trophy and he did so in a landslide despite zero fanfare entering the season. Newton’s rare combination of size, speed, strength, athleticism, arm strength, running ability and accuracy was fully exploited by Auburn offensive coordinator (now head coach) Gus Malzahn. Newton ran 543 plays while leading the SEC in rushing and topping the nation in passing efficiency.
Newton also went on to become the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
In 2011, Robert Griffin III, a former world-class track hurdler, exploded in Art Briles’ Baylor offense for 4,992 yards of total offense and 47 touchdowns while leading his team to its best record since 1980 and a top 15 ranking in the polls. Griffin III was awarded his school’s first Heisman Trophy, beating out Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who had entered the season as a heavy favorite to win the trophy. Griffin ran an amazing 581 plays and broke the NCAA passing efficiency mark while making Baylor football relevant for the first time in a generation. He went on to become the second pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
The four Heisman-winning quarterbacks since 2007 have averaged 4,566 yards of total offense and 52 touchdowns on 552 plays. Each of them played for offensive innovators who ran a version of the spread. Each won the Heisman despite historic obstacles and each had profound impacts on their school’s success before going on to become first-round picks in the NFL draft.
This year, Johnny Manziel is the latest iteration of the “Super Quarterback” phenomenon. Like the others, he’s a unique talent featured in a juiced-up spread attack that enables him to put up remarkable statistics. Through 12 games, he’s run 584 plays for an SEC-record 4,600 yard of total offense and 43 total touchdowns — numbers that are right in line with those of recent Super Quarterbacks. He led his team to a 10-2 record in its first go-around in the SEC, it’s best season since 1998. Along the way, he managed to lead the SEC in rushing and direct an upset of the nation’s No. 1 team.
And he’s about to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy? Shouldn’t it be obvious by now why that’s the case?
Keep in mind that the five previous Heisman-winning quarterbacks before Tebow — Troy Smith, Matt Leinart, White, Carson Palmer and Eric Crouch — averaged 3,237 yards of total offense and 34 touchdowns on 453 plays. The five since — if you include Manziel — are averaging nearly 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns more per season.
The trend is unmistakeable.
But how did we get here?
According to Brown, the rise of the Super Quarterback reflects a sea-change in how current offenses are designed and the players they emphasize. From 1972 to 1983, for instance, a running back won the Heisman Trophy every single year. The best athlete on a team was usually the tailback and because of the dominant, downhill running systems of that era — the Wishbone, the I-bone, the Power I — we saw dominant performances from that position.
Offenses started to feature the quarterback more in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that we began to see great athletes play the position with regularity. Michael Vick of Virginia Tech was one of the best early examples and he finished third in the Heisman vote as a freshman in 1999 despite modest numbers by today’s standards.
“Vick was clearly as talented as some of these later guys have been,” Brown said. “But he just played in a very different offense. Tech didn’t do zone reads. It was pretty much pro style with the option sprinkled in and some bootleg.”
Frank Beamer gave Vick just 299 plays that year. Eight years later, Tebow was running nearly twice that number in Meyer’s offense.
“By the time you got to Vince Young or Tebow, you really wanted to feature those guys,” said Brown. “Offenses run through the quarterback nowadays. It’s a natural reflection of what’s going on at all the levels. Unless you are Albama or LSU with an elite defense, you’re in some kind of offense that is going to be spread based with a quarterback.”
The development of quarterbacks at the Pop Warner and high school levels also influences this trend. Kids who 20 years ago might’ve been relegated to playing defensive end or receiver because of their athleticism are instead being taught how to play quarterback. They’re hiring private coaches and learning how to throw the ball properly and read defenses. By the time they get to college, many are ready to shine. College coaches are responding by building offenses specifically designed to showcase their talents.
“Recruits are finding good fits at schools where they can be featured,” said Brown. “If you’re Urban Meyer, you can tell a guy like Tebow that he’ll be featured in all kinds of ways and that his skills will be utilized.”
The success of these offenses creates a feedback loop, with coaches finding more ways to get the most out of their elite quarterbacks, which then attracts the next wave of elite quarterbacks who then take these offenses to even higher levels.
Brown notes that what Tebow did at Florida and what Griffin III did at Baylor was significantly more evolved.
“We quickly moved to a world where instead of a guy like Tebow being the centerpiece, you had Griffin III operating at 100 miles-per-hour with package plays,” said Brown. “His coaches trusted him to run the show on the field. He’s cerebrally in control of the whole game. It’s going to be tough to get much better than him.”
So what’s the next step in this quarterback evolution? Brown isn’t sure if there is one, but he does see some downside to the current trend.
“The risks are that, as a team, your entire offense goes through one guy,” said Brown. “If that player has a bad day, you lose. The reason he’s winning the Heisman is that your whole team revolves around how he plays, but that’s why Nick Saban does not use that strategy. He doesn’t want to win or lose based on how his quarterback plays.”
Ironic, then, that Alabama’s one loss this season was to a team that utilized that very strategy. There’s obviously a ton of spread quarterbacks out there, but not all of them are good enough to single-handedly beat elite teams like the Crimson Tide. Not all of them are good enough to revive a program and win the Heisman as a freshman.
These days, it takes a Super Quarterback.